The Iowan caucus is the first step in a long road towards the White House, giving it a debatably inflated value. As the earliest primary being held, Iowa is often used as a proving ground for would-be candidates to show their electability. With such an important position in the democratic process, you would expect a carefully thought out system to be in place. However, in one of the least diverse states in the country, the Iowa caucus consistently fails to meet comparable voter turnouts to its non-caucus peers. This leads to the current predicament of a small state with a bad system being used to influence the largest U.S. election.
Iowa isn’t unique with its choice of primary system, and it shares the same issues with other caucus states. So, what is a caucus and why is it so bad? A caucus is in-person, community voting. The idea is to bring voters together so they can debate about candidates before voting. At over 1,600 locations in Iowa, voters chose their preferred candidate by physically standing next to delegates before being counted. Next, any candidates who received less than fifteen percent of attendance are eliminated, and their voters must pick a new candidate. Votes are then recounted, and delegates are assigned proportionally. This sounds simple, but caucus voting has a few major disadvantages.
It’s because of the in-person voting style that caucuses struggle with voter turnout. Doors close at Iowan voting locations at seven, and late attendance is not allowed. This kind of inflexible scheduling is needed to host an event as large as a statewide caucus, but it discourages a lot of people from voting. Not to mention the many people who have little control over their work schedules. There have also been major issues with accessibility for people with disabilities. In all Iowa has one of the worst primary voter turnouts with only 17 percent of eligible voters participating in 2008. New Hampshire, with only half the population of Iowa, received 60,000 more voters that year. The strict schedule of a caucus leads to a high opportunity cost that many working-class people don’t have the ability to pay. This leads to caucuses being made up of generally more affluent people who can afford to participate. No one should unable to participate in their democracy because they couldn’t get a shift off. And without any other way to vote that’s how a caucus works. This is a system in which many poor, minority and disabled voters have a much harder time accessing their democracy than more affluent white voters in the same state.
The kind of political debate that happens in a caucus is certainly valuable, but it comes with the undeniable cost of excluding voters who might participate otherwise. To make voting more accessible, however, is also to eliminate what makes a caucus a caucus. There is unfortunately no in between. So what’s more important, an in-person gathering or giving everyone a voice?